Editor's Blog

The relentless logic of diversity

The paucity of women on company boards has been the subject of much debate, but it is just the poster child of a much wider discussion about representation and diversity across society.

There is a growing sense that power is concentrated in the hands of a narrow strain of the population (often characterised as 'wealthy, white men') and that something has to be done to balance things up.

You might think not-for-profit organisations – especially individual membership organisations - would be ahead of the game when it comes to ensuring more inclusive representation.

But repeated studies show that associations are struggling as much as their for-profit cousins to identify the problem of homogenised power structures - and then do something about it.

The latest research by US-based Vetted Solutions found that while 81 per cent of association executives viewed diversity and inclusion as part of their association's core values, only 45 per cent had an action plan for implementing diversity and inclusion initiatives. A similar number (44.3 per cent) either had no procedure for ensuring diversity on their boards or were unsure if they had.

We shouldn’t pretend this issue is without complexity. The demographic make-up of boards often (not always) reflects the make-up of the wider profession.  What then? Should boards reflect the wider profession or ‘lead by example’ and seek to be agents of change? There is also a relentless logic about diversity that, if followed rigidly, could turn recruitment into a nightmare of the absurd.

We have heard organisations – including governments – boast about enforcing a 50-50 gender split when it comes to decision-making. But what about ethnicity? Is age-discrimination a problem? Are young people under-represented on boards? Are boards weighted towards people from particular cultural or religious backgrounds? Could addressing these disparities be more important than addressing an imbalance in gender? Who determines the hierarchy of inclusion?

Some will argue this is whataboutery. You can’t solve one problem by continually pointing to a list of others. And if the alternative is to sit on your hands and do nothing, then surely these people have a point. 

In any event, this is a problem that won’t go away, and associations seeking to expand into new territories with diverse cultures and traditions, will have to ensure new members from these territories feel as though they have a genuine stake in the association. And that could make organising a 50-50 gender split seem enviably simple. 

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